God’s Balance Sheet: Lessons in Stewardship ~ Don’t Be A Fool!

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 12:13-21

One of the Reeves’ congregants approached me after service last Sunday and said, “Sarah, I’m glad Fright Nights are over.  You did what you said you would: you got up under the terror of those texts and exposed the underlying sin.”  I thanked her for her kind words and said, “Next week we begin our focus on stewardship!!”  To which she replied, “Oh…maybe Fright Nights aren’t over…”

(insert sound effect of a trombone playing wah wahh wahhhhhhhh!)

Hmmm…nobody much likes to talk about money/finances/stewardship it seems…  I’ll admit.  This is my first year ever leading a stewardship campaign.  This is also my first year ever…(ev-AH!)…offering a sermon series on money.

Four weeks…on stewardship…tuck and roll.

I’m a bit excited…I like a challenge.  And it seems our culture’s – and our church’s – biggest challenge these days is the stewarding of our resources.  So here we go!

In this week’s Scripture – the Parable of the Rich Fool – Jesus admonishes, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).  The central figure in this parable – a rich individual – is convicted as a fool by God.  But what is this person’s folly?  The text does not specifically reveal the person’s misstep; however, Leander Keck et al., the editors of The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, identify five possible areas of folly:

1. The rich individual was “preoccupied with possessions” – this individual’s goods are his or her sole pursuit in life and this parable seeks to reveal the poverty in this sort of abundance.

2. The rich individual experienced “security in self-sufficiency” – this individual is a lone ranger, needing help nor community from no one.  This is a severely prideful inclination.

3. The rich individual is held fast in “the grasp of greed” – where greed prevails generosity is assailed.  In greed responsibility for others is depleted and compassion is deleted.

4. The rich individual revels in “the hollowness of hedonism” – the greatest good this individual can see is in instant gratification.  There is no thought to what will or is to come.  The rich individual’s gaze is horribly narrowed to the realm of “eat, drink, and be merry.”

5. The rich individual lives as a “practical atheist” – the rich individual may have professed faith in God but regarding the management of resources this individual worked, rationalized, engaged as if everything depended solely on him or herself; therefore, negating God from the equation.

(Leander Keck et al. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Luke and John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 257.)

When I reflect upon my own life I like to think that I am counted among the wise or the faithful when it comes to the stewarding of my resources.  Not just my monetary riches but my riches of prayer, presence, gifts, service, and witness, too.  But as I consider this Scripture passage in dialogue with my life, I recall times where I have fallen to folly and found kinship among the foolish.  These remembrances throw into sharp contrast to where Christ wants me to be and the place that I did (or currently) occupy.

This parable ends with a powerful statement (as most parables do), “This very night your life is being demanded of you” (Luke 12:20b).  Commentators have interpreted this verse to mean that the rich fool died at the end of this encounter with God and that all the riches he or she had stored up went to waste.  I am of the mind that God demands our lives of us every.single.day.  Much like the covenant that Joshua declared, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).  Whom this day will we serve?

Whom this day? And perhaps more pertinent to this week’s Scripture passage – how and  with what will we serve?

Reflection: If we choose to serve the Lord then how will we steward our resources – whatever they may be – to share with others as a faithful expression of our love of Christ?  Will our storehouses be silos and islands or community faith and resource banks?  How will this effect our affinity among the the faithful or the foolish?

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Fright Nights ~ Daughter of Jephthah

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Judges 11:29-40

This week is the last week of our Fright Nights series and we will spend it with the Daughter of Jephthah.

When we shake down this text to its core we uncover the sin that seeds the terror.  The sin is an unfaithful vow and the terror that results is child sacrifice.

In Genesis 22 we read another story of child sacrifice, but it is stopped before the dagger meets flesh.  Abraham is instructed to take his son Isaac – his beloved long-awaiting son Isaac – and sacrifice him.  Abraham is obedient.  He builds the altar.  He gathers wood for the fire.  He binds his son and draws back the blade.

(dramatic pause)

And God provides a ram in the thicket.  The animal is sacrificed.  The boy is spared and father and son journey down the mountain.

God does not intervene to spare the daughter of Jephthah.  This does not mean that God cares less for women than men.  Rather, as commentary writer J. Clinton McCann writes, “the literary and theo-logic of Judges 11:29-40 does not permit God to intervene.  In Genesis 22:1-19, God proposes the test, not Abraham.  In Judges 11:29-40, Jephthah proposes the vow, not God.  Abraham’s faithfulness in response to God’s test shows that God does not will human sacrifice.  Jephthah’s unfaithfulness and self-assertiveness in sacrificing his daughter also show that God does not will human sacrifice” (Interpretation: Judges (Lousville: John Knox Press, 2002) 86).

McCann suggests that God intervenes in the tale of Abraham because God set up the scenario.  God cannot intervene in the case of the daughter of Jephthah because the scenario was completely Jephthah’s own.  In making his unfaithful vow Jephthah limited and revoked God’s ability to act.  Jephthah made the vow; Jephthah had to carry it out.

I think McCann’s suggestions raise some interesting questions.  God set up the scenario with Abraham; so, God can intervene.  The Genesis text is pretty clear to reveal that Abraham knew what he was supposed to do.  God gave Abraham the procedure and Abraham was completely committed to pull the trigger but then didn’t have to at the last moment.

But what about us?  I am sure we would all prefer to have constant direct communication with God like Abraham did.  “Okay Sarah, now I want you to do “X” and this is your procedure: #1…#2…#3…”

It’s not always that way is it?  More often I think we may fall into the line of thinking that Jephthah did.  We set up scenarios.  We create opportunities.  We execute activities and then reap the consequences good or bad.  We do this because God blessed us with the faculties, the knowledge, the gifts, the abilities to reason, to dream, to scheme, to act.

So how do we guard ourselves from falling down the slippery slope of Jephthah – how do we stop from falling into disobedience and making faithless vows?

I believe we are able to stop ourselves because of God’s grace in our lives.  God’s grace is an expression of God’s love for us.  And with that grace and that love God will never compel us or force our hands.  God wants us to use the gift of free will to make our own decisions, to create opportunities for ourselves, to seek our own way.

BUT!!!

God wants us to do so with our foundation being in God’s grace.  If we vow out of God’s grace, if we decide out of God’s grace, if we live and move and breathe and steward out of God’s grace then we will be guarded from disobedience and faithless vows.  And our decisions will not limit or exclude God from intervening because we will have been with God – as God intended –  from the beginning.

Reflection: What will you have to change about your decision making process or your creation of opportunities process to make sure it is grounded in God’s grace so that God can intervene and guide?  Will this be an easy change to make or a difficult one?  Recall a time where you cut God out of a decision or an opportunity.  What did you learn from that experience?  How could grounding that decision or experience in God’s grace have altered the outcome?

Prayer: Great God, we seek to be a people of grace.  By your grace ground us, shape us, guide us.  May our decisions and opportunities flow from you and be rooted in you.  Forgive us when our decisions and opportunities exclude you.  Redeem our disobedience and in doing so, draw us closer to you.  In your name we pray, Amen.

Fright Nights ~ Concubine from Bethlehem

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Judges 19:22-30

The final verse of our Scripture lesson this week reads, “Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.”

We turn our eyes to the fright of the fate of the Concubine from Bethlehem.

Phyllis Trible in her text Texts of Terror uses these verbs to describe her fate, “captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered, and scattered” (81).

Perhaps the terror experienced by the Concubine from Bethlehem could have been avoided if the Levite fulfilled his original purpose of “speaking love” or “speaking tenderly to her.”  But he did not and she paid the ultimate price with her life.

As a way of making some meaning of this terror – I’m not sure one could ever make sense of this terror or any terror – Trible offers these words, “Long ago the man was supposed to speak to the heart of the woman, though he did not.  Now Israel must direct its heart toward her, take counsel, and speak” (Texts of Terror 82).

Consider it.  Take counsel.  Speak out.

Consider it: the terror experienced by the Concubine from Bethlehem was not confined to her.  She was one of 600 women that would experience terror before the conclusion of this tale and the conclusion of Judges.

Take counsel: I believe this terror ensued because hospitality was replaced by hostility.  A sin has been committed and redemption is greatly needed.  Repentance is greatly needed.

Speak out: Trible says, “To take to heart this ancient story, then, is to confess its present reality.  The story is alive, and all is not well.  Beyond confession we must take counsel to say, ‘Never again'” (Texts of Terror 87).

This “never again” should be spoken as words of comfort to our brothers and sisters that have experienced terror from our own hands as well as the hands of others.  This “never again” should also be spoken to ourselves.  As we commit this story to our hearts we commit to speaking tenderly and straight to the hearts of those that find themselves prostrate on the thresholds of our lives.

In this “never again” is solidarity.  In this “never again” is transformation.

In this “never again” is healing and hope.

Prayer: Never again, O Lord.  Never again.  Forgive the terror we inflict.  Redeem the brokenness we cause.  May your healing reign.  May your children be up-builded not torn down.  Give us pause to consider, take counsel, and speak.  Strengthen our voices for justice and our hands for mercy, as we cry, “Never again, O Lord. Never again.”  Amen.

Fright Nights ~ Tamar

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Samuel 13:9-19

I attended an anti-bullying seminar while in high school.  The t-shirts for the event were black with a very crude (what we now call) emoticon on the front.  What was intended to be a smiley face was a pain-stricken yellow circle with weary eyes and a zipper for a mouth.  The zipper was closed but the face looked anxious to speak.  The caption for the shirt read, “Silence isn’t golden.”

How true that is.

Unfortunate events occur all around us and when they do we greet a pivotal point: address it or ignore it.  Give it voice or by our apathy essentially affirm or promote the continuance of the event.

Which would you choose instinctively?  Which would you choose after reflection?  How can we transform the “after reflection” choice into the “instinctive” choice?

(Can you guess which one I think should be our response?)

I live in the hope that one day our instinctive choice will be the gospel choice, which is to give voice, bear witness, raise awareness, and heal.  God in Christ Jesus calls us to be the change!

I will admit it is quite a challenge at times to give voice, bear witness, raise awareness, heal, and be the change in day-to-day circumstances.  Perhaps it is even more difficult when we are confronted with an unfortunate circumstance in Scripture.

– segue to this week’s passage –

When we encounter difficult Scripture passages we meet the same pivotal point: address it or ignore it.  And as it was with my anti-bullying seminar, silence isn’t golden.

– I promise…we’re almost to this week’s text –

Difficult Scripture passages make us uncomfortable, rub us the wrong way, and may lead us to only read the Scripture passages that make us feel happy, hopeful, comfortable, and secure.  Leader Keck et al., The New Interpreter Bible Commentary editors, lift up the royal rape of Tamar as a text that is shied away from because of its horrific nature.  While identifying our hesitancy towards this text Keck et al. simultaneously identify that this hesitancy does a disservice to the text.  Shying away from this text limits – or even denies – how God’s Spirit can speak to us through this text.  Shying away from this text also does a disservice to the communities of faith of which we are a part because this behavior can distance us – our empathy and our relationships – from our community members that identify with or share a tragic kinship with this story and others like it.

Keck et al. write, “In reading this story, we are forced to recognize our own experience in this ancient tale.  There is an empowerment that comes from recognizing that this story names present realities as well as those long past.  If such stories are read as part of our biblical tradition, similar stories can be faced in our own lives, in the lives of our family and friends, and in the life of our communities” (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: II Samuel 1306).

In other words, when we don’t preach, read, or study texts like the royal rape of Tamar we perpetuate the violence of the text through our silence.  But, writes Keck et al., “if the church can be the place of such reading and such voicing, then there is hope that the church might provide a community prepared to take action against continued patterns of violence against women (and I believe other groups that have been victimized) in our culture and to stand in caring support of those who have already been victimized” (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: II Samuel 1306).

(deep breathe to let things marinate)

Silence isn’t golden.  So let’s end our hesitancy.  Let’s get uncomfortable with Scriptures.  Let’s be unsettled, be attentive to how we feel, and respond!  Let’s get in touch with our empathy, seek out relationships, and build community.

Prayer: O God, sow within me your seed of constant vigilance to study what you would have me study, read what you would have me read, and speak as you would have me speak.  Lead me to the uncomfortable places and be my companion.  Open wide my ears, eyes, and heart.  Amen.

Fright Nights ~ Hagar

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 21:9-21

This Sunday I am beginning a new series entitled Fright Nights!  The purpose of this sermon series is to explore and study a collection of texts categorized by Hebrew Bible Scholar Phyllis Trible as texts of terror.  These texts offer insights into variations of terror by exposing the root of the terror which is sin.  These sins are not unique to the persons who committed them; rather, these are sins we are all capable of, sins we may have felt the effects of at the hands of another or perhaps have inflicted upon others.

This week’s case study is Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Abraham and Sarah who obeys her mistress and conceives a son for Abraham so that God’s promise of progeny would be fulfilled.  Sarah’s sin is that she doubts God’s faithfulness.  In her impatience Sarah decides to take matters into her own hands by having Hagar conceive, carry, and deliver Abraham’s child.  Her sin then crescendos to terror for Hagar as Sarah rejects and dismisses the slave woman and her infant son.

Hagar did what she was asked.

She was used – abused – and rejected.

Terror.

God remains silent during the transaction of Hagar – and I say transaction because as this story unfolds Hagar is no longer a person but an object.  Abraham appeals to God for guidance and God says to listen to Sarah.  So Hagar is deposed.

Hagar wanders in the wilderness and fears imminent death for her child she cries out to God who is hidden and not yet known to her.  The angel of God speaks and offers her the care that she did not receive from Sarah or the father of her child.  Her eyes are opened and she sees a well teeming with life-giving water for her child.  God intervenes on the side of and on behalf of Hagar the outcast.  This movement ensures that though God may be silent God will not remain silent.  God is the provider for orphans and outcasts.  God will not turn away.  God will deliver.  God transforms the terror.

Phyllis Trible in her book Texts of Terror writes that “as a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people…She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.”*

I believe many of us find kinship with Hagar as we have been used, abused, and rejected.  I believe many of us shy away from the actions of Sarah…even though we are equally guilty of inflicting those wounds on others.

For me the terror experienced by Hagar stirs the question of how our communities of faith will respond to the Hagars of the world?  Will we create space for Hagar to find cool water in the oasis of our fellowships?  Will we speak?  Will we intervene?  Will we heal?  Or will we remain silent and let the terror continue?

Prayer: O God of love and hope, forgive me when I act like Sarah – using, abusing, and rejecting your precious children.  O God of love and hope, heal my Hagar wounds.  O God of love and hope, open my eyes that I may recognize the Hagars in my midst and create space for them in my life and your sanctuary.  Amen.

*Trible, Phyllis.  Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984, 28.